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Meet: Michael "Mike" Malin

Mars Global Surveyor and Surveyor 98 Cameras


mike malin photo
My Journals

My Job

I am the principal investigator on three camera systems that will be sent to Mars over the next four years: the high- and low-resolution cameras (one system) on the Mars Global Surveyor 1996 mission, the medium- and low-resolution cameras (the second system) on the Mars Surveyor 1998 Orbiter, and the descent camera (the third system) on the Mars Surveyor 1998 Lander. As principal investigator (or PI for short), I am responsible for each of these entire experiments, from start to finish. This includes coming up with the idea for each camera, putting together a team of engineers to design and build it and scientists to use it and interpret the pictures, watching over the development of the hardware and software, operating the camera (determining where and when to take pictures, and of what features), analyzing the pictures, and preparing them for distribution to other scientists and the public.

My job right now is mostly managerial, but exactly what I do varies greatly from day to day. Sometimes I spend most of my day talking on the telephone to various engineers or managers at the companies working on the cameras, or at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (which oversees my work for the government), or at Lockheed Martin Astronautics (the company building the Surveyor spacecraft). Other days I spend writing reports of our progress, or plans for the next phase of the project. Since I am also the president of my own company, I also have to spend some time talking or meeting with bankers, lawyers, accountants, and other people important to my business. Since the Mars Observer project began, I have had little time to devote to scientific studies, but that will change when Mars Global Surveyor arrives at Mars and I can study the pictures being received.

The most interesting part of my job today is thinking up new instruments for future missions. There is tremendous competition to provide instruments for upcoming spaceflights, and the things that limit what we can do (size, weight, power and cost), added to the intensity of the competition, make for an exciting challenge.

Getting Started

I decided to work in a space-related field when I was very young. Exactly when I cannot remember, but I clipped articles from newspapers that described rocket flights several years before the first satellites were orbited (when I was 5 or 6 years old). Throughout my education, I studied as much science as I could, in class, by going to the public library and reading, and by visiting the Griffith Park Planetarium (in Los Angeles, where I grew up). I continued to keep a scrapbook of newpaper and magazine articles until I went to college. At first, I wanted to be an astrophysicist (a combination of astronomer and physicist), but in college I became interested in the geology of other planets and pursued that direction of study. During my undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley (I received a B.A. degree in physics, with a minor in English literature), I worked for two professors who were studying samples brought back from the Moon. When I went to graduate school (at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena), I worked with a professor who was part of the Mariner 9 camera team and the leader of the Mariner 10 camera team.

After I graduated with my Ph.D. (in Geology and Planetary Science), I worked for four years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I was able to participate in both the Viking and Voyager missions in a support role. I left JPL in the late 1970s, when the space program entered a period of reduced spaceflights and taught geology at Arizona State University in Tempe. There I broadened my research experience by collaborating with other scientists who studied the Earth rather than other planets, and I began research programs studying volcanoes (I was at Mount St. Helens within a month of its major eruption in 1980), water erosion processes in deserts (in parts of Arizona and Utah, and in Iceland), and wind erosion (in Iceland and Antarctica). All of these research topics are relevant to Mars, which remained the planet in which I was most interested, although I also conducted planetary science studies of Venus, Mercury, the Moon, and the satellites of Jupiter during this period.

The Things I Like Best and Least About My Job

When I was young, I promised myself that I would never work at a job that wasn't fun. I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to keep this promise. The best thing about my work is that it involves so many different things--like writing, speaking, traveling, studying, hiking and camping. If I get bored or frustrated with any given job, I can put it aside for awhile and work on something else. Often I can work on several things at the same time. And all are fun.

The thing I like the least about my job is that there is so much work to do that I can't do it all myself. I have had to learn to let other people do things instead of me. I don't like this since usually it was something I wanted to do myself. Working with a team is much harder than working alone. However, teams can do much more than individuals, and so the rewards can be much greater when everyone works well together. And it can be fun having others with whom you can share ideas and experiences.

Things I Read When I was a Kid

As a kid, I read a lot of science fiction and science books. I particularly like science fiction that was well-based in science (I still don't care much for fantasy books). My favorite authors were Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Issac Asimov (writing both as Asimov and Paul French), and Arthur C. Clarke. I believe these books helped develop my imagination while keeping me from total flights of fantasy.

People Who Influenced Me

I have been lucky to have a large number of people influence me. The most important person was my mother, who encouraged me to always do the best I could, and who also continually challenged me to do better. My father died when I was seven, so my mother really was the guiding light in my life.

I attended an elementary school in North Hollywood, California (a suburb of Los Angeles) that specialized in "special education" classes for kids with physical or other handicaps, but which also provided regular classes for their brothers and sisters. I had two teachers there (Mrs. Judith Newman in the second grade and Mrs. Mildred Christiansen in the sixth grade) who greatly encouraged me, and provided the extra challenge to work harder. In junior high, my ninth grade science teacher (Mr. Robert Hayes) let me try out experiments after school; this was my first experience with research. As a physics undergraduate at Berkeley, two faculty (Buford Price and John Reynolds) and three of their post-doctoral fellows for whom I worked (Calvin Alexander, Dennis O'Sullivan and Wolf Kaiser) showed me how to do REAL research, and with another professor (Kinsey Anderson) who provided independent research funds for a lunar photogeology project, changed the entire direction of my professional life (from physics and astronomy to planetary science).

It was in graduate school, however, that I met and worked with the men who had the most influence on my professional life: Bruce Murray, Robert Sharp and Eugene Shoemaker. Murray was my research advisor, and the four years I was his student were the most exciting and productive of my career. Sharp is a living legend, one of the greatest geologists of this century, and his guidance by example, in particular in jointly conducted research, was the most important to how I developed as a professional scientist. Shoemaker is the "father" of planetary geology, and I was fortunate to be the teaching assistant for his lunar geology course during the first few years after the lunar landings completely changed our view of the moon. From Gene I discovered it was okay to have fun while other people paid you to work.

A Little More About Me

I am a native Californian, born in Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles, (at a hospital right across the street from the Walt Disney Studios), raised in North Hollywood, Studio City, and Van Nuys, all in the San Fernando Valley north of LA, and educated at Berkeley and Caltech. I have only lived outside the state once, for 11 years when I taught at Arizona State University in Tempe (a suburb of Phoenix). I moved back to California after I left ASU in May 1991. Today, I live near the ocean in La Jolla, California, a suburb of San Diego. The offices of my company, Malin Space Science Systems, are nearby.

I enjoy my work very much. Some of the pictures below may indicate why:

helicopter in antarctica at south pole in alaska

From left to right, these pictures show me:

  • in a helicopter in Hawaii, on my way to study Mauna Loa volcano

  • jumping and saluting like an astronaut in the Olympus mountain range in Antarctica

  • standing at the South Pole, holding the American flag that marks the location

  • crossing a stream in Katmai National Monument in Alaska, where I was studying the results of a large volcanic eruption in 1912 (my pack, weighing 40 kg (90 pounds), includes four cameras!)

There is a real danger in having a job that is as much fun as mine: I am "addicted" to my work. I don't have any hobbies because my job lets me do many things I might otherwise do as a hobby (for example, I make computer animations and go hiking and camping). I do enjoy fly fishing and sailing, but haven't figured out a way to relate this to my work (yet!).


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